Avoiding Digital Blackface, and Other Actions for Allies

Each week, Karen Catlin shares five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Better Allies®
6 min readOct 2, 2020

1. Avoid digital Blackface

The University of Illinois Social Media Accessibility & Inclusivity Guide defines digital Blackface as non-Black people using technology to “try out” Black identities online. For example, excessive use of dark-skinned emojis or GIFs featuring Black people.

They recommend watching this brief BBC video to understand the term and its historical origins. Believe me, it’s worth your time. (Content Warning: The video contains historical footage of Blackface minstrel shows.)

The guide goes on to explain:

“The easiest way to avoid digital Blackface is to learn more about it and make sure that Black people are widely represented in a variety of roles in your social media posts. It’s not about not showing Black images, it’s about being mindful of the way Black people (and all marginalized people for that matter) are represented by your organization and ensuring that you are not furthering harmful, stereotypical representations of any group of people.”

(We discovered this resource via Aleria. Many thanks to them for tweeting about it.)

2. Offer a practice interview

This week, I spent some time working on a new talk about my book, The Better Allies® Approach to Hiring. As I mined it for the best practices I want to speak about, I found at least one I haven’t shared before in a newsletter: Offer a practice interview.

I came across this idea when reading How Microsoft Tapped the Autism Community for Talent in the Wall Street Journal. During interviews, people with autism can experience anxiety, which may lead them to freeze up and struggle to communicate their knowledge. Yet,

“Individuals with autism tend to have strong skills in specific areas and, when they develop an interest in a subject, can become so knowledgeable about it that they may end up outperforming their peers.”

Microsoft decided to adapt their hiring processes to better meet the needs of this group.

Here’s just one of their approaches: Offer candidates a practice interview where they get feedback from recruiters before doing the official one.

I think this approach would work for anyone with pre-interview anxiety. Perhaps because they’re returning to work after taking a caregiving leave. Or they have a non-traditional educational path. Or they’re a member of an underrepresented demographic.

Allies, can you offer to do a practice interview for these candidates?

3. Be transparent about your interview process

Here’s another tip from my Hiring Guide: Be transparent about your interview process. As tech company Automattic found when they surveyed job applicants,

“It’s important for women job searchers to know what the hiring process looks like when they are applying because of non-work-related commitments many have.”

I bet their finding applies to other genders, too. Especially for anyone with caregiving responsibilities.

Because of their research, Automattic created a page that clearly outlines their hiring process for software developers.

P&G is also transparent about their process, outlining what happens during the application, assessment, interview, and offer steps. They also use it as an opportunity to acknowledge some candidates may need accommodations due to disabilities:

“To ensure that everybody who is interested in joining our team has equal opportunity and ability to start that journey, we have made sure our hiring process is flexible and accessible. From the application to interviews, our team will adapt to your needs and what works best to help you show us your best. To learn more about the P&G Disability Accommodation process, click here.”

Now it’s your turn. Take a look at your company’s careers page, and identify if there’s something you can do to be more transparent about your process.

4. Understand your privilege

After reading the Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping from President Trump, I’m dismayed, frustrated, angry, and concerned. In a nutshell, it prohibits diversity and inclusion training from covering a set of “divisive concepts,” including the idea that people are even discriminated against because of their race or gender.

I’ve got about a million things I could say about it, but I’ll stick to just one.

An underlying premise of the order is that because our Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal, it is so. (Don’t get caught up on the word “men” … stick with me.) That we are not a racist and sexist country. That no one has more privilege than others based on race or sex.

I disagree.

Unless we are aware of the unearned privilege we have simply because we’re a member of a certain social group, we can’t be aware of how others without that privilege experience the workplace. Or society at large. We must understand our privilege to be better allies, citizens, and human beings.

I encourage all of you to spend just a few minutes understanding your privilege with 50 Potential Privileges In the Workplace. As you review it, tally how many you have. Make a note of any that are surprising to you. Leave a comment if you have a question, and I’ll do my best to answer each one.

5. Do something, even if you can’t do it all

In a recent newsletter, I quoted Brené Brown:

“People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”

After receiving it, a subscriber sent me an email pushing back. They pointed out that not everyone works in a place free of consequences for making mistakes. Not everyone has the privilege to speak up without fearing they’ll lose their job. As they wrote, “Not everyone can afford to be a martyr.”

I get it that some workplaces lack the psychological safety needed to allow people to make mistakes and to embrace the subsequent learning that comes from them.

Here’s the thing. When we stand by and not say something when we see racism, sexism, or other isms, we send the message that we’re okay with it. When we don’t take action, we are complicit. This is why I believe we need to speak up and push back to disrupt the non-inclusive status-quo.

I asked this subscriber if they had suggestions for how an ally can take action without being a martyr. While they acknowledged a lot depends on the overall culture and your place in it, they shared a few less risky steps to take:

  • Speak to a person after an incident of bias or discrimination to show your support.
  • Amplify someone’s work in casual conversations. E.g., “Ji had some really interesting ideas in the planning meeting yesterday.”

As allies, we don’t have to do it all. But, I urge you to do something to advocate, amplify, and support your colleagues from underrepresented groups. Even if it’s a less risky action. Hopefully, you’ll make a difference and build your tolerance for taking even more risk.

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

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